Graduated Licensing

Copyright (c) 2002 by Kenny Felder

"We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today."
- Stacia Tauscher

"Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves."
- C.S. Lewis

My nephew Chris is 16 years old, and he is a really good kid. He gets good grades in school, works hard at his job making backyard decks, and roller skates so well he has been paid to make promotional videos. But Chris has one fatal flaw: he respects the system and plays by the rules. When the rules stop making sense, that can get him in trouble.

This past July 4, Chris spent the evening at the beach. As usual, he thought the whole thing through. He brought plenty of money in case of emergencies. He brought a cell phone in case he had to call his Mom. And he gave himself plenty of time to drive home before midnight. This last precaution was critical because, as a 16-year-old, Chris is not legally allowed to drive after midnight.

Then, on his way home, Chris got a flat tire. It was dark, and he was inexperienced—it took him an hour before the tire was changed and he was ready to go. And by then, there was no way for Chris to get home by midnight. If it had been me, I would have just driven home, and crossed my fingers that no one caught me. But Chris doesn't work that way. He called his mother, and explained that he couldn't drive home. They agreed that the only reasonable thing for Chris to do was to find a nearby hotel and stay there until morning—or at least until 5:00, when he was allowed to drive again. Fortunately, there were plenty of hotels nearby with vacancies.

But this is where the story gets really comical. The hotels wouldn't take him. Why? Because—you guessed it—he was under eighteen years old. I don't know if it's a business policy or a law, but for whatever reason, no hotel was willing to rent a room to a sixteen-year-old with a fistful of emergency cash from his mother. I'm sure it never occurred to Chris to lie about his age, and they probably would have checked his license anyway. So, in the name of obeying the laws that are designed to keep children safe, Chris took the only option available to him: he pulled into a parking lot and slept in his car until the morning, when he woke up and drove to work.

Chris was caught by a system called "graduated licensing," which is becoming increasingly popular throughout the country. Like all the restrictions we put on young people, graduated licensing is designed with the noblest of intentions. Statistically, young drivers tend to get into more accidents than adults. Therefore, we preemptively assume that all teenage drivers are accidents waiting to happen, and put legal restrictions in place to protect them from themselves.

Of course, this sort of logic is only permissible when you're talking about the young. The statistics are perfectly valid: the fatality rate for teenage drivers is about four times as high as the rate for drivers age 25-69. However, the fatality rate for drivers age 70 and older is nine times as high.1 Can you imagine placing legal restrictions on all drivers over a certain age? "I'm sorry, sir—your vision and coordination are good, but it's after 9:00, so 72-year-olds are not allowed on the road."

If that isn't controversial enough for you, try this on for size: Hispanics are more likely than Whites to drive with blood alcohol concentration levels over .05. In terms of overall mortality rates, rates of death due to motor vehicle crashes are higher among Hispanics than among Whites and African Americans.2 Can you imagine a law restricting the driving privileges of Hispanics? Such a law might make the roads a bit safer and even save a few lives, but we would all immediately condemn it as biased and unfair.

And why? Because we have decided as a society that it is unfair to judge a person as safe or dangerous, mature or immature, responsible or irresponsible, based on how other people in his group tend to act. If the group is a particular race or religion, we call that judgment "profiling." But in the case of youth, we call it "compassion." Our society is ready to tell Chris that he can't drink, can't smoke, can't drive after midnight, can't get a hotel room, can't sign a contract, can't see an R-rated movie, and can't vote, and—this is my favorite part—that it's all for his own good. Because he's a minor. Because lots of other minors have done irresponsible things. Because the whole notion of human rights, dignity, and responsibility does not kick in until the age of 18 or 21.

The damage done by such an attitude may extend far beyond a few children stuck sleeping by the side of the road.


From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

I find the story interesting and amusing, and the argument interesting and not entirely convincing, but I didn't think they really connected much at all. Your argument against graduated licensing was that it represents unfair profiling. The story implicitly condemns the law because when applied across the board without exceptions it can lead to bad consequences. The two points are quite distinct. If the story really contained your argument against the law then the solution would simply be to have a provision that allows for stranded minors to call the police for an escort, perhaps at a cost comparable to a night's stay in a hotel. Or whatever. The point is that you tell a story illustrating a practical problem with the law that could in principle have a practical solution, but you really have a moral problem with the law for which any practical solution would be irrelevant.

From: Kenny Felder
September 1, 2008

If a black person is pulled over by the police for DWB ("Driving While Black"), it is an ethical outrage. It also causes the victim a whole lot of personal inconvenience. These two issues are separate, but they aren't all that separate: when we discriminate against people, we tend to cause problems for them.

From: Kenny Felder
December 26, 2008

The wonderful woman Lenore Skenazy tells a story which is similar in some ways, and draws some conclusions that are also similar to mine, here:

From: Jennifer Petro
December 29, 2008

The whole restricting youth driving makes no logical sense. Okay, so kids are more likely to have accidents because they are inexperienced and lack good road judgement. But the only way to improve these skills is driving! And plenty of it. The only way kids get any good at driving is by doing it. How are they going to learn how to drive at night or in less-than-ideal conditions if we never let them practice? They aren't going to magically be any better at 18 or 21 if they've had little to no road experience.

From: Kenny Felder
December 29, 2008

Thanks for your comment, Jennifer!

I appreciate what you're saying, but I don't think it holds up to the numbers. A large group of 21-year-olds (who have never driven before) will be, on the average, safer drivers than a comparable group of 16-year-olds (who have never driven before). These statistics have been collected pretty consistently over the years, and I don't see any reason to doubt them.

I know it sounds like I'm arguing against myself here. But my argument is not to dispute the real safety benefits of graduated licensing and other age-based restrictions, but to point out the dangers of restricting individual people based on statistical trends: a danger that our society recognizes and respects with every group except "young people."

From: Anne Worth
July 16, 2009

The graduated licensing essay seems quite topical to those of us in MA right now since the Legislature is debating a bill to require periodic road testing of seniors, starting at age 85 I believe. This is FINALLY coming about due to a terrible series of fatalities in recent months caused by elderly drivers. I believe roughly 8 deaths or serious injuries? Pretty awful. The interesting thing is that the paper published a graph of accident fatalities vs. age of driver and the spike began well before age 85. Unfortunately I guess the Legislature knows that this is a very touchy subject, politically speaking, and their only hope of getting the bill passed is to push the age up quite high.

In any case, many of the letters appearing in the paper about this bill compare teen drivers to elderly drivers. Senior drivers who are angry about possibly losing their license often bring up teen drivers and how statistically unsafe they are (somehow ignorant of their own statistically unsafe age group).

I am not sure from your essay what you would like to see as far as licensing is concerned. Would you like licensing to be completely based on testing independent of age? I don't think I agree entirely with that. I think teenage brains are in fact different from adult brains and until a certain age I'm not sure I'd like to see complete unrestricted driving by teens. For example, I think the rule here in MA about younger teen drivers not being allowed to drive with other teenagers in the car (and no adult) is a good law. It's too distracting for the younger driver to have a bunch of friends in his/her car for those first couple of years.

One more point—you may argue that even if you agree with me about teen brain vs. adult brain, it should be up to the individual family or teen or person to make that decision for him or herself. If that family or driver or even the passengers in the car were the only people involved, then perhaps I could see your point. However, car accidents rarely affect only one car. Let's say we change society so that it's Kenny's perfect world and all teens get their unrestricted license upon passing their road and written tests. I believe that we would see a rise in fatalities, and it would not be just those teens and passengers who would die, it would also be the people in the cars they crashed into. So, I think it's not such a bad thing that we've decided to restrict teens in this particular way.

From: Kenny Felder
July 17, 2009

I have to admit, my essay left it pretty ambiguous exactly what I think "should" happen.

First of all, I completely agree with your point that driving is not just a personal choice: a bad driver endangers innocent strangers. For that reason, for instance, I am definitely completely in favor of laws against driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I heard a really interesting plan, decades ago, to require a device on all cars that would simply prevent the car from starting if the driver was impaired, and I'm not sure what happened to that plan, but I thought it was really interesting and worth thinking about.

But now we come to the question of teenagers, and old people. And—I'm sorry, but this is a very key point to me precisely because it is so offensive—Hispanics. Hispanics cause more accidents than white people. You could argue that this is not because of "brain differences" and of course you're right, but so what? They still cause real deaths of real innocent victims, and if we stopped them from driving, or put restrictions on them, we would save lives. Is that a good idea? Most people would say it isn't: it isn't fair, it penalizes Hispanics who are perfectly good and safe drivers because they happen to share a racial profile with bad drivers who they don't even know, and so on. So my question is, why do we use one kind of logic with Hispanics, and a completely different kind of logic with teenagers?

From: Anne Worth
July 24, 2009

So my question is, why do we use one kind of logic with Hispanics, and a completely different kind of logic with teenagers?

I have some ideas about this. Here's my reason for putting teens *and* elderly drivers in a different category from Hispanics (or any other race-based category of driver). All humans have the potential to pass through the stage of life we call teen or elderly, with the physiological changes that pertain thereto. Whatever factors affect the driving abilities of those categories (teens, elderly), will affect all of us that live to that stage of life, albeit to different degrees.

I strongly suspect, although I am no social scientist, that the differences in driving records between Hispanics and whites could be explained by a combination of socio-economic and cultural factors. If that's the case, then they would not be applied equally across all Hispanics. They wouldn't even be applied evenly across all Hispanics in the same community. No licensing law could be devised that would be both fair and useful in this circumstance. (Not to mention that any law attempting to license by race would be completely inflammatory, but I'm sure you understand that very well.)

I think you are using the Hispanic argument, which you know isn't likely, simply to knock down the teenage licensing argument. I simply must disagree with you on that as I think teens are still not in full control of their own impulses, as a result of biological development, and need some time, and some externally applied controls, to be steady drivers.

From: Hope Langston
February 16, 2011

It's an interesting rant, Kenny. I'm not sure about the practicality of your argument against graduated licensing, and I do feel that there are natural, biological development reasons that teens are in that high risk driver category. However, I do agree with your moral argument against the law. I feel that we disempower teenagers to sometimes absurd degrees, in ways that are ultimately detrimental to their growth rather than protective and fostering of it.

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